Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Shame as Unrequited Love

A new blog begins today, exploring the roots and lasting effects of shame.

As Psychology Today launches this new blog on the subject of shame, I'm in the midst of my background research on the origins of shame for my next book. While I've been addressing the role of shame and its relationship to narcissism with my clients for many years, and writing about it on my website After Psychotherapy since its inception, I haven't yet found a way to explain what I intuitively understand on a clinical level: that a kind of shame takes root in the first two years of life and can instill a feeling of inner defect and "ugliness" that lasts a lifetime.

I need a definition of shame that takes into account its purpose from an evolutionary perspective and also accounts for related emotions such as embarrassment and humiliation; it must encompass different varieties of shame such as the type discussed by Brené Brown in her recent book Daring Greatly and the toxic kind described by John Bradshaw in Healing the Shame That Binds You.

Tall order!

In the posts on this blog, I'll be sharing my efforts to come to terms with these concepts, relating them to my years of experience with clients afflicted by deep shame. Along the way, I'll occasionally discuss my own struggles with shame, as well; much of what I understand about shame and the defenses against it comes from personal experience. I believe that facing shame and what it tells us about ourselves can lead to authentic and lasting self-esteem. While the deepest, most pervasive kind of shame -- what I refer to as basic shame on my website -- afflicts us at our core, that doesn't mean true self-esteem is out of reach. Provided we respect our limitations and accept that shame will last a lifetime in one form or another, we can engage in healthy relationships, make better choices and fulfill ourselves in ways that give meaning to our lives.

Although I may at times come across as pessismistic, because I don't believe we can ever "triumph over" or permanently "heal" basic shame, I'm actually an optimist on the subject of shame and self-esteem.

As part of my research, I've begun reading Silvan Tomkins' magnum opus, Affect Imagery Consciousness and what he has to say about shame as one of the nine primary affects. It's heavy going, written in the kind of scientific language that feels so experience-distant and which I frankly dislike reading. As I went through Donald Nathanson's Introduction, I came upon this description of the shame affect, a built-in response to certain stimuli to be found in human beings everywhere. In other words, it is innate and automatic.

Alone of the innate affects, [Tompkins] conceptualized it as a mechanism triggered when something interferes with the experience of positive affect ... but does not turn it off completely. Shame affect has evolved to call attention to the presence of some stimulus that distracts from the preexisting positive affect but does not displace it. 'Aw mom!' is a typical and expected protest of the child whose excitement over a television program has been interrupted when mother demands attention and distracts from the obvious trigger for interest by standing in front of the screen.

See what I mean?

As a more intuitive than conceptual person, I have a hard time relating this to my own experience. On an emotional level, I can't quite believe that what the child feels in that situation is actually shame. And yet I sense that there is something important here.

One recent night when I awoke after one a.m. and couldn't go back to sleep, I reached for my novel, Anna Karenina; after reading a few drowsy pages, I came across a sentence that brought me fully awake with a start. Kitty and Vronsky are dancing at a ball together. Kitty thinks she's in love with Vronsky and until this moment has believed the feeling to be reciprocated: "Kitty looked into his face, which was so close to her own, and long afterwards -- for several years after -- that look, full of love, to which he made no response, cut her to the heart with an agony of shame." So when Kitty stares lovingly into the face of Vronsky and he doesn't reciprocate it, the experience leaves her with a lasting sense of shame.

The passage brought to mind the still face mother video.


Even if you've already seen it, it's worth another look. Just as Kitty's loving gaze is met by Vronsky's indifference, the baby's smiles and gestures elicit no response from her mother. Tompkins might say that when the infant's positive affect (what he'd refer to as interest-excitement or enjoyment-joy) is disrupted by the mother's failure to reciprocate, the result is the affect of shame-humiliation.

This early experience of mis-attunement, of the mother's failure to empathize with her baby's emotions and to mirror them back (perhaps because she's depressed, self-absorbed or overwhelmed by her own emotional difficulties) -- this misattunement produces shame. Shame as the result of unrequited love, if you will. It's not the kind of shame caused by social messaging but something more basic and fundamental. If that baby's experience were to be repeated, if the attachment relationship failed to develop normally and the mother consistently fell short on an empathic level, it would deform the baby's developing self and lead to a kind of structural affliction I refer to as basic shame.

I find it easier to account for this kind of shame within attachment theory than Tomkins' view of the affects. Fascinating research is being done by Allan Schore and other neuro-biologists on early attachment relationships and how they affect brain development during the first two years of life ... but that's a subject for another post.

I'm proud to join this fine team of experts here at Psychology Today and I hope to instigate some thought-provoking discussions on the subject of shame over the coming months.